The Obama administration moved quickly this week to try to defend U.S. personnel from an impending advance from the terrorist group ISIS – an offensive that caught the President and his advisers off-guard, and forced him to reconsider his long-standing opposition to new military action in Iraq. But Obama still has not decided on, much less put into motion, any plan to stem ISIS's expansion, despite having committed military forces.
The Pentagon announced Friday a series of targeted airstrikes on ISIS convoys and artillery positions near the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, including two attacks by drones. In their public statements, top officials were clear that President Obama's Thursday authorization for the use of force in Iraq was limited to protecting U.S. military and diplomatic personnel and perhaps helping the Yazidi minorities trapped on Mount Sinjar.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that additional U.S. military help for the Iraqi government would only be considered after the troubled Iraqi government picks new leadership – a process that could take weeks or months to develop.
"This is a threat that we cannot confront for them; it is a threat that can only be met and defeated by a unified Iraq in support of an integrated, capable Iraq security force," Earnest said.
That attitude left lawmakers and experts from both the right and the left lamenting that Obama had so badly underestimated the threat posed by ISIS, which in January he compared to a "JV" team wearing pro athletes' uniforms. They also want the administration to hurry up and decide how it plans to go after the group, both in Iraq and in Syria.
"You've got to take the offensive against ISIS," Sen. John McCain told The Daily Beast in an interview Friday. "We are paying the price for inaction and we are paying the price for withdrawal. [Doing more] would contradict some of the fundamentals of [Obama's] national security policy. But it's just tragic."
The terror group's push towards Erbil isn't the first ISIS offensive that's surprised Obama and his advisers. The administration's slow response to ISIS's quick advances in both Iraq and Syria is well documented. The White House ignored several warnings before ISIS took over Mosul earlier this summer. And the administration didn't respond when moderate Syrian rebels warned that ISIS was about to take the strategic border town of Der al Zour.
According to sources close to the discussions, President Obama resisted using military force again in Iraq both because he did not feel confident there was sufficient intelligence on the ground. He was also reluctant to reverse the full pullout of combat forces in Iraq, which fulfilled a key campaign promise.
But late last week — as intelligence reports of ISIS's moves towards Erbil came in, the Kurds' pleas for help grew more urgent, and more American intelligence assets arrived in the region — the President's national security team began to coalesce around the case for the strikes. McCain said that ISIS held American-made Howitzer cannons had come within range of Erbil, where U.S. personnel reside. That made the decision to do something urgent.
Only two weeks ago in Aspen, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the administration was still working on a broader strategy to deal with ISIS and the president hadn't decided on any specific course of action.
"The United States military does consider [ISIS] a threat to, initially to the region and our close allies, longer term to the United States of America," he said. "And therefore we are preparing a strategy that has a series of options to present to our elected leaders on how we can initially contain, eventually disrupt, and finally defeat [ISIS] over time."
"We are paying the price for inaction and we are paying the price for withdrawal. [Doing more] would contradict some of the fundamentals of [Obama's] national security policy."
Perhaps that strategy, when it coalesces, may help Iraq – although military officers with deep experience in the region have their doubts. "A division of Iraq may be the best outcome," a retired senior military officer told The Daily Beast. "The worst could be that they [ISIS] take control of the whole damn place."
But the administration's slow move towards action is almost certainly too late for ISIS's foes in the moderate Syrian opposition, which is badly outgunned and simultaneously losing two wars on two fronts, one against the Assad regime and one against the Islamic extremists. Shortly after being elected last month, the new president of the Syrian National Council, Hadi al-Bahra, sent the Obama administration a proposed framework for cooperating against ISIS.
"The ISIS terrorist army and its Assad enablers pose an existential threat to the Syrian people and to the region of the security as a whole," al-Bahra wrote. "The Free Syrian Army has demonstrated that it is a capable and willing partner in the fight against terror. We ask that we move forward together in implementing this action plan before it is too late."
Arming the Syrian opposition is risky and airstrikes against ISIS in Syria would be even risker, because the U.S. does not have support on the ground. But even Obama's supporters of said that the President now has to figure out what to do next. And whatever that is, it must address ISIS's growing influence in both Iraq and Syria.
"You have two problem sets, Iraq and Syria, that over the summer have collided, but inside the administration it's still all stove piped," said Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank with close ties to the administration. "You now have to treat these two problems as one integrated problem. The border for all intensive purposes is gone."
CAP came out for airstrikes against ISIS inside Iraq in June, but warned they were not a panacea. The goal of the strikes should be to weaken ISIS and must be done in conjunction with a regional strategy to fight the group on all fronts, the think tank argued.
That isn't possible unless the U.S. changes its policy and figures out a way to fight ISIS inside Syria, said Katulis. That's where the group controls large swaths of the country, including Raqqa, Der al Zour — and threatens to take control of Aleppo, Syria's second largest city.
"These strikes mark a slight shift of tactics but it's not a change of strategy by any means," he said. "The question still unanswered in this approach is how do you actually deal with this threat in a strategic way."
McCain, who has long pushed for greater U.S. involvement to combat the threat from ISIS, was unimpressed with Friday's strikes. They could bolster ISIS's propaganda narrative while barely slowing them down, he said.
"This is a pinprick," McCain. "It's almost worth than nothing because I fear the president is threatening and then he won't follow through… It's the weakest possible response and we cannot allow them to take Erbil. What [the administration has] done so far is almost meaningless."